Don’t believe us? Give it a try next year. We dare you. 🙂 We were looking for a new challenge when our friend and fellow paddler, Phil Meyer, suggested the first-ever “Quest for the Crest” – a 10k trail running race billed as the toughest 10k in the world. As so many of these catchy race phrases are merely designed to attract attention, we were somewhat skeptical about the World’s Toughest 10k living up to its claim, but so it did.…
Our life is rarely a straight line from Point A to Point B, so our trip to Burnsville, North Carolina for the race would take us through Atlanta for pizza at Antico Pizza Napoletana and paddling with friends, then to Chattanooga where Bethany could reunite with her old paddle family, colleagues from L2, and the Scenic City.
For those unfamiliar with Chattanooga, it’s a city that has risen from the polluted, industrial wasteland of its past into a green, environmentally friendly community worthy of its nickname as the Scenic City. The Bluff View Art District, filled with cafes, galleries, and bakeries, overlooks the Tennessee River from bluffs atop the downtown area.
It became a perfect place to park VANdal for the night. Fully blacked out and parked between the bakery and the lovely sculpture garden just along the Tennessee Riverwalk, we could sleep soundly and awaken to the welcome early morning scent of freshly baked bread. After a morning walk through the gated sculpture garden, we sipped coffee and enjoyed a quintessential Chattanooga sunrise.
Part of our trip to Chattanooga was also to make a visit to friend, fellow paddler, and physical therapist, Mell Igot, of Alliance Physical Therapy, seeking a solution to a chronic shoulder injury of Bethany’s that had started to impair her entire arm down to her fingers.
Mell’s approach to healing extends beyond mere symptom relief and aims to uncover the root of the problem, recognizing the synergistic nature of the body, and combining modern physical therapy techniques with traditional Chinese healing arts. He diagnosed Bethany’s hand and forearm injury as years of scar tissue & disfunction stemming from the shoulder.
Through manipulation, dry needling, and e-stim, combined with taping and home exercises, Mell sent Bethany off with a practical prescription for healing. Even in just one visit, it was clear that his diagnosis and advice was on target, demonstrated by an immediate sensation of “hitting the reset button” on the debilitating effects of her injury.
Physical therapists, like all other professionals, are plentiful, but exceptional ones are hard to find. And driving 608 miles to see Mell was entirely worth the trip.
After a necessary lunch stop at the White Duck Taco Shop in Asheville, we headed off to Burnsville, North Carolina (about forty miles outside of Asheville) to find the next VANdal stealth campsite for the night. According to Martin, the White Duck ruled supreme for tacos until Bethany’s wild salmon tacos with mango pineapple slaw became a staple in the household diet. (An accolade of serious pride for Bethany because the White Duck is DARN GOOD).
If we haven’t given our readers enough reason to love VANdal, here’s #876 (but who’s counting?) After tracking down the race parking area, we found no reason we would be unable to spend the night on-site, so we nosed VANdal right up to a lovely creek perfectly located right where we’d need to be at 6:30 the following morning. Talk about convenience! There we stayed, watching movies on the laptop while listening to water cascading over the creek bed, feeling very fortunate that we weren’t on a lumpy mattress with scratchy sheets listening to drunk truckers intermingling with loud hookers at a local Super 8 motel or its equivalent the night before a race.
In the morning, the long wait for the vans to transport us to the race start gave us time to catch up with Phil, get our pre-race stretching and foam rolling in, and let breakfast settle.
After commuting all of the participants by the vanload to an aggressively steep dirt road, the race started with no warm-up time whatsoever. It was literally, “On your mark, get set, GO!”
Just two-tenths of a mile in, the only relatively flat part of the race came to an end and we were all funneled onto a single-track trail heading straight uphill at about a 30% grade.
As our heart rates went from zero to 90% in no time, we thought that the steep pitch had to end shortly. But each time we thought the brutal climb was over, it seemed to only get steeper.
About halfway up the mountain, the slope increased to about a 40% pitch, causing us to scramble on all fours up rocks and roots. This degree of difficulty was made even more challenging and thrilling by the fact that the night before presented strong rains. Now, the nearly vertical trail was wet, covered in mud, and offered no purchase for feet or hands.
We were braced with the knowledge that in the first two miles, we could expect a climb of a vertical kilometer. That said, when our GPS’s showed 2.2 miles and the summit was nowhere in sight, our level of enthusiasm plummeted quickly. In fact, thinking we had crested, we reached a rocky outcropping only to be informed by the race marshall that there was an additional 800 vertical feet to ascend before reaching the crest. Would this climb EVER end?
In our competitive arsenals, we each carry different strategies for dealing with pain and pushing to the limit. Bethany propels onward by singing, staying positive, and finding a cohort of people in her ability range that can help take the edge off the pain, thus staying focused on the enjoyment of the experience. Bethany’s crew of four pushed up the mountain and celebrated when reaching the summit, taking in every breathtaking scene along the trail with amazement and gratitude that we had the opportunity, the ability, and the desire to do something this crazy on a Saturday morning.
This was drastically in contrast to Martin’s silent, focused, eyes-on-the-target, push 100% of the time at 100% effort strategy. Both were successful, both were the best way for each of us to experience the race, and in spite of having no hills to train on in Florida, both of us finished in roughly the top third of the pack.
The summit finally came, however, the afore-promised breathtaking views had been clouded over in a dense fog, lending a different kind of beauty than we were expecting as we reached the crest with burning legs. At least at that point, we thought that the descent would be much easier and that the agony had past.
We thought wrong.
At this point, it had taken us an hour and twenty minutes to ascend a mere 2.5 miles. (To put that into perspective, the winner of the race, Clyde, an avid world class mountain ultra distance runner, managed to cover that distance in just under an hour. A typical trail race competitor can expect do that in less than twenty minutes). What we anticipated would be a runnable, sloping downhill of roughly four more miles turned out to be quite different.
As we jogged through the cloud bank across the crest, the trail became deceptively dangerous with ankle twisting divots and rocks hidden beneath tall, wet grass. As the descent continued, the trail became narrow, rocky, and muddy, with large puddles connected by streams of cascading water, providing each runner with a distinct choice: Run fast and risk slipping, falling, and being grated like a block of cheese on the stones (which many runners got to experience), or take the way of the turtle – slow and steady, but which made the quads and knees burn from the constant braking.
With nearly two miles to go, the steep trail finally became more gradual, paralleling a picturesque stream with waterfalls and dozens of pools of clear cold water: Invitations to stop and soak our bruised and abused bodies. At that point, we could finally appreciate the beauty of the mountain, the lush, unspoiled forest which canopied above us, and the way the mist in the air made the trail look like a verdant tunnel winding itself to a distant finish line.
The finish line couldn’t have been more welcoming as it was directly preceded by a shin-deep stream crossing we had to run through, signifying our completion of the World’s Toughest 10k. And, which proved to be a wonderful place for us to sit and ice our feet, ankles, and calves after the race.
Mission accomplished! Then, it was back to the van for those famous salmon quesadillas with mango slaw, a hot post-race shower, and on to the next VANdal adventure.
Join us next for another round at Islamorada. Then, we welcome your suggestions as we plan VANdal’s big adventure out west for Summer 2014.
Coming Soon: We review the Icebreaker merino wool apparel we wore for the race, dish up a recipe for Bethany’s VANlife tacos, & we let our readers in on a review of the great White Duck Taco Shop.